"The title character, a peasant sold as a concubine to a cruel old man, is played by the beautiful Gong Li, one of the great actresses of our time who followed this brilliant work with spectacular performances in The Story of Qiu Ju (1991), Raise the Red Lantern (1992), and Farewell, My Concubine (1993). Li Wei plays her master, Yang Jin-shan, the childless owner of a dye mill in the agrarian China of the 1920s. Li Wei's fine performance combines craftiness with iniquity reminding me a little of the late great John Huston with scruffy beard. The third character in the tragic triangle is Jin-shan's nephew, Yang Tianqing, a modest man who does most of the work in the dye mill. The pent-up intensity of Li Baotian, who plays Tianqing, recalled to me at times the work of Ben Kingsley. Ju Dou falls in love with Tianqing almost by default, and it is their ill-fated love that leads to tragedy.In some ways this visually stunning, psychologically brutal film about paternity and the old social order of China was Director Zhang Yimou's "practice" for the making two years later of his masterpiece, the afore mentioned, Raise the Red Lantern, one the greatest films ever made. The theme of patriarchal privilege is similar, and in both films Gong Li portrays a young concubine required to bear a son and heir to a cruel and ageing man of means. Even though the setting in both films is China in the twenties before the rise of Communism, both films very much annoyed the ageing leadership of Communist China and were censured (Ju Dou was actually banned), ostensibly for moral reasons, but more obviously because of the way they depicted elderly men in positions of power. Ju Dou is the lesser film only in the sense that Sirius might outshine the sun were the two stars placed side by side. Both films are masterpieces, but for me Ju Dou was difficult to watch because of the overt cruelty of the master, whereas in Raise the Red Lantern, Yimou chose to keep the more brutal aspects of the story off camera. In a sense, then, Raise the Red Lantern is the more subtle film. It is also a film of greater scope involving more characters, infused with an underlining sense of something close to black humor. (The very lighting of the lanterns was slyly amusing as it ironically pointed to the subjugation.)In Ju Dou there is virtually no humor and the emphasis is on the physical brutality of life under the patriarchal social order. Ju Dou is beaten and tortured while we learn that Jin-shan tortured his previous wives to death because of their failure to bear him an heir. The terrible irony is that it is Jin-shan who is sterile. He feels shamed in the eyes of his ancestors because the Wang line will die out with him. But a child is finally born through Ju Dou's illicit affair with Tianqing. (Note that this conjoining in effect saves Ju Dou's life.) Jin-shan thinks the infant is his son and briefly all is serenity. However, while two may live happily ever after, three will not. Notice too that now that Jin-shan has an heir, nephew Tianqing will inherit nothing.Will they kill Jin-shan? Will fortuitous events put him out of the picture? Will they find happiness? Will the boy learn the truth about his paternity? Yimou's artistry does not allow superficial resolution, you can be sure.Note the two significant turns the film takes early on. One comes after Ju Dou discovers that Tianqing has been spying on her through a peep hole as she goes about her bath. At first she is mortified, and then sees this as a chance to show him the scars from the torture she endures daily, and then she shows him her body to allure him. The other turn comes as the child pronounces his first words by calling the old man "Daddy." Instantly Jin-shan, now confined to a wooden bucket that serves as a wheelchair, divines a deep psychological plan to realize his revenge. He embraces the child as his own, hoping to turn the boy against the illicit couple. The strength of the film is in the fine acting, the beautiful sets, the gorgeous camera work, and in the unsentimental story that does not compromise or cater to saccharin or simplistic expectations. Yimou is a visual master who turns the wood gear- and donkey-driven dye mill of the 1920s into a tapestry of brilliant color and texture. Notable is the fine work that he does with the two boys who play the son at different ages. He has them remain virtually mute throughout and almost autistically cold. Indeed part of the power of this film comes from the depiction of the character of the son who grows up to hate who he is and acts out his hatred in murderous violence toward those around him.Zhang Yimou is one of the few directors who can bring simultaneously to the silver screen the power of an epic and the subtlety of a character study. His films are more beautiful than the most lavish Hollywood productions and as artistically satisfying as the best in world cinema. The only weakness in the film is perhaps the ending which is played like a Greek tragedy for cathartic effect. One senses that Yimou and co-director Yang Fengliang in choosing the terminus were not entirely sure how this tale should end and took what might be seen as an easy way out."
5 stars for the film, 1 star for the Razor Digital DVD relea
D. Draheim | 11/30/2005
(5 out of 5 stars)
"A note to readers, I have not viewed this new DVD version of this film first-hand. However, a very helpful screenshot analysis by a DVD enthusiast's website clearly demonstrates that this DVD does not do Zhang Yimou's great film justice; a review from www.dvdtown.com underscores this assessment. (www.dvdbeaver.com has a detailed side-by-side comparison of an earlier, out-of-print DVD release of Ju Dou by Pioneer with this new one from Razor Digital. The earlier version, which I already have, is clearly a better transfer even though it is in 4:3 ratio and still not great.) Based on all this information, and yet another review I found elsewhere (excerpt below), I can't recommend that people purchase this version on DVD. I have just cancelled my order for these two films, which I enthusiastically placed 2 or 3 months ago. I will keep my Pioneer version of this DVD. I guess if you can't find a copy of that one, which isn't great but is surely better than the new Razor Digital release, then this version would be better than nothing. It's still a great movie. But it appears that the wait must continue for a decent DVD release of this film - and also for Raise the Red Lantern. What a shame. Criterion really should get the rights to these films and do them justice.
And here's the excerpt from the review I found of this new version at www.dvdtown.com:
"The 1.85:1 non-anamorphic widescreen video is a disaster. The print used for this video transfer is in incredibly lousy shape. There are so many scratches and gashes that it looks like the film print was found in a trash can. The image is often wobbly, jittering up and down, left and right. Colors are muted and faded. The reds bleed. The picture looks muddy and cloudy, and it is so generally lacking in definition that you don't even know what you're observing during long-shot scenes. What's particularly awful is that the movie was shot with the three-strip Technicolor process, which means that the movie should look breathtaking."
(AND BELOW IS MY REVIEW PRIOR TO LEARNING HOW BAD THIS VERSION OF THE DVD REPORTEDLY IS)
I have been waiting YEARS for this film to come out on DVD. (Likewise for Raise The Red Lantern, another Zhang Yimou/Gong Li masterpiece, which is also coming out on DVD from Razor Entertainment on the same day.) I actually own a Region 1 copy of Ju Dou, released by Pioneer years back, which is in 4:3 format and not very good quality - but at one point it was selling for up to $100 a copy, because it was the only legitimate DVD version available. (I also have a DVD version of Raise The Red Lantern, which I bought from a seller in Hong Kong via a popular auction website, but the quality is lousy and the subtitles are not very good, either.)
When I saw a few weeks ago that Razor was releasing this, I sent them an email asking about the quality, format etc. and they very quickly replied that this will be widescreen, Region 0 (viewable universally) and they are doing the transfer from the master digital tape from China. I don't know what that means exactly, but hopefully it will be an improvement over the version I have now. I have nothing to say concerning the film itself, enough has been written already. It's a heartbreaking story, beautifully filmed and wonderfully acted. The colors are incredible, it is obvious Zhang Yimou was a cinematographer before he started directing. I have been a fan of both Zhang Yimou and Gong Li for almost 15 years now, ever since I first saw this film in a little theater in Washington, DC. Why Criterion has not released DVD versions of these great films is beyond me, although I noticed they have yet to release a Chinese film.
Hopefully Razor will do this great film justice. I can't wait to find out."
Great movie, but
J. Dunn | Aurora, Colorado USA | 03/17/2006
(1 out of 5 stars)
"I second the reviews below. This is a 5-star movie, but the quality of this transfer is horrible. Parts of the movie are very scratchy and full of film debris. Worst yet, to me, are the subtitles. They are laughable. Almost every subtitle contained some error. While it was (sorta) fun to laugh and the odd subtitles, that tended to remove me emotionally from the film. Too bad. The same comments apply to the "Raise the Red Lantern" release from this same company."
The new Razor edition has atrocious color and contrast
J. Steffen | Decatur, GA USA | 02/13/2006
(1 out of 5 stars)
"The now out-of-print Pioneer edition was widely criticized for being full frame, but in restrospect it didn't look that bad. At least the colors were reasonably accurate. The new Razor edition tends to be overly reddish-orange, with harsh contrasts that at times obscure details. I've seen bootlegs with better quality. A great visual artist like Zhang Yimou deserves so much better!"
anonymous | Madrid | 01/27/2001
(5 out of 5 stars)
"This was the first Gongi Li film I saw and its visually beautiful with an unforgettable story and sensual sexy portrayal which makes it stand out as exceptional. No one is making films like this in Hollywood. The chemistry between the Gongi Li and Li Bao-Tian is amazing. The story is however a tragic one. The mendacious but wealthy textile factory owner Yang Jin-shan (Li Wei) runs a successful business but has no heir. So buys himself a beautiful wife Ju Dou (Gong Li) However he obvious impotence leads to rages and then violence directed at Ju Dou who is trapped in a horrific situation. The charismatic but poor right hand man Yang Tian-qing (Li Bao-Tian) falls in love with her which further complicates an already explosive situation. This film is a must see with no easy answers at the end"